Traditional Publishing Enjoys Its Best Sales in a Decade—Despite Supply Chain Problems

From Jane Friedman:

Recently you may have heard about book publishing’s printing problems from outlets such as the New York Times and Publishers Weekly. In the US and UK, spring and summer titles were delayed until fall, making for a crowded season. Not only is it challenging to get media attention for new releases right now, but it’s also leading to a “printer jam”—a tight printing market.

Meanwhile, a surge in print book sales during the pandemic, with a volume increase of about 12 percent over the summer, has made things worse. In fact, for the year print book sales are up by nearly 6 percent versus 2019; traditional publishing is expected to have its strongest performing year since 2010. But it has come at a cost: reprints that normally take two weeks now sometimes take more than a month. Some publishers have now pushed back release dates to 2021 as a result of low printing capacity.

So what’s caused this tight print market?

Printing delays are problematic—but the problem has little to do with the health of book publishing.

Book publishing is just a fraction of the overall printing and paper business in the US, and it will continue to be at the mercy of bigger marketplace changes. The printing market has been tight since at least 2018 for various reasons, all complicated by issues such as tariffs on paper. Even pre-pandemic, there wasn’t any slack in the system.

We talked to industry veteran Bo Sacks about the current environment and how we reached this point. Sacks has observed the evolution, growth, and decline of printers for the last 50 years. “They’re in serious debt, which is part of the problem,” he said. That’s because of the long, ongoing battle between the two largest printers in the United States—LSC Communications and Quad—to buy up market share. Sacks says sometimes the printers would buy a company just to get the clients, then shut down plants. Quad, in fact, only entered the book-printing business in 2010, and through just that type of scenario. But these decisions were made in another era, Sacks said: “2010 seems a lot longer than 10 years ago. The difference from that moment until now is unbelievable.”

Sacks said that Quad built the company on the expectation that long-run magazines would go on forever. (Long-run magazines are titles that get printed in extremely high quantities.) But that’s not a business model that works today. “The long-run [magazine] titles are diminishing and dying left and right,” Sacks said. “So what they’ve done in the last decade is buy plants that focus on short-run printing.” He says that getting quality workers—productivity—has also been part of the problem. And indeed, at the Book Industry Study Group annual meeting this year, an industry expert on book manufacturing said that a tight labor market is one of the industry’s biggest problems, and perhaps only automation can solve it.

. . . .

Ingram is helping publishers (of all sizes) meet increased demand for books as the supply chain gets tighter and uncertain.

Due to the pandemic and current events (see: political books related to the US election), some books are more in demand than ever, exacerbating the supply problem and creating order backups.

Industry vet Mike Shatzkin wrote about how publishers’ ability to keep fulfilling orders during the pandemic has relied heavily on Ingram’s Guaranteed Availability Program, which uses print-on-demand to ship books to accounts within 24 hours. This program makes it possible to deliver “just about any quantity of books to just about any account in the world. With just about any return address you want on the package,” Shatzkin writes.

Indeed, Ingram is critical in the US market as the biggest wholesaler and distributor of print books; its operations include Lightning Source, a print-on-demand printer used by small and Big Five publishers alike, as well as IngramSpark, its self-publishing arm. Turnaround times for print-on-demand through Ingram have become significant: 22 business days, not counting shipping. Before the pandemic, typical turnaround time was a few days.

As Shatzkin notes, five of the top 10 New York Times nonfiction bestsellers in June 2020—related to social justice and antiracism—were supplied by Ingram’s Lightning Source division and benefited from the GAP program. If publishers had waited even two or three weeks for supply, those sales would’ve been completely lost.

However, one group is not so happy with Ingram: authors using IngramSpark. Print turnaround times for self-publishing authors using the service have been 22 to 24 business days (plus shipping time) since May. Author Andrew Shaffer said, “I’ve been working on a new self-published book, and a five–six week turnaround to get a single proof copy is unworkable. Then when I make a change to the cover or whatever, I have to wait five–six more weeks to see how it prints.”

Ingram announced earlier this year they’re investing in their print-on-demand operations across the globe and will hire hundreds of new employees to run new equipment now being installed. In an August 12 presentation, Ingram representatives spoke directly to publishers’ concerns about managing inventory and making books available as buying patterns keep shifting. Matt Mullin, senior key accounts sales manager at Ingram Content Group, advocated that publishers move as many backlist titles as possible to print-on-demand and consider using Ingram programs like GAP, which keep titles available via print-on-demand if conventional supply runs out.

. . . .

Publishers haven’t been great at predicting which books or categories will spike in demand. In February and March, book publishers realized the scope of the pandemic and made the decision to stock up on pandemic and dystopian literature, Mullin said. But people don’t, in fact, want to read about the end of the world while stuck at home. In fact, one UK study found such literature rated at the bottom of what consumers’ stated preferences are. Of course, we now know what did sell and continues to sell: home-education materials. While some trends might be predictable, like gardening in summer, “What’s amazing is how widespread the [sales] uncertainty is. It really goes across every category,” Mullin said.

In a Publishing Trends article looking at the recent increase of digital and POD printing, Lorraine Shanley writes, “The old model of looking at the unit cost of a manufactured book has morphed into looking at the cost per unit sold. And, as printers close and consolidate, … flexibility becomes more important, forcing publishers to look at ‘total cost of ownership.’ How do the advantages of having inventory on hand in your own warehouse weigh against the carrying costs—or the possibility that the warehouse closes or the inventory can’t get to the end user?” That is the calculation that publishers must make during the pandemic, and it’s the kind of uncertainty that will carry through 2020, and into much of 2021.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

3 thoughts on “Traditional Publishing Enjoys Its Best Sales in a Decade—Despite Supply Chain Problems”

  1. Perhaps someone can chime in here with knowledge of what is going on with Amazon POD (completely ignored by the OP).

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